In Search of Simplicity

Over the last couple days, we’ve had a discussion in my department over Microsoft Office versions. We’re trying to build an image to run on old computers. We want the performance to be as good as possible, even though it’s going to be running on 6-7 year old computers with limited processing power and memory.

Dan used the excellent nLite Windows Installation Customizer to weed out a lot of the unneeded Windows features. We don’t really need support for 50 different languages. We don’t have to have the Novell networking protocols installed. With these computers, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to be doing any video editing, so those tools aren’t needed. He did a great job of creating a Windows installation with just the stuff we need.

When it comes to Office, though, the debate is over whether we should use Office 2000 or Office 97. We know that there’s nothing in Office 2007 that we need that isn’t in Office 2003. We also know that 2003 doesn’t offer significant improvements over Office XP (which is the version we run on most computers). With the exception of making mail merge more difficult to use, I don’t really recall any major advantages to XP over 2000. And, though it’s been the better part of a decade since we upgraded, I don’t recall Office 2000 being that much of an improvement over Office 97.

All of this discussion of Office versions prompted me to think about how much I actually use a word processor. Most of my writing is done in other places. In the last year, I’ve written twice as many blog posts as word processing documents, and 23 times as many email messages as blog posts.

Where I Write

Yet, when I look at the complexity of the tools, it’s backwards. Take the toolbars, for example. In the version of Word I’m running, if I have all of the toolbars enabled, there are 224 toolbar buttons to click on. That’s without customizing any of the toolbars or adding anything that’s not there by default. In WordPress 2.5, there are 35 with the “kitchen sink” option enabled. In my email program (Thunderbird), there are 15. How many do I actually use? Maybe half a dozen.

Complexity of the Tool

Maybe I haven’t used Office 97 in so long that I forgot how bad it is. But I think I’m going to dig out an old installer and try it.

6 thoughts on “In Search of Simplicity

  1. I enabled all the toolbars, and then I counted them. I was going to insert a screen shot, but felt the post was already a bit too image-heavy. I didn’t count all those little arrows you can click on that pop up the “Customize toolbar” option.

    Now that I’ve counted them, everyone else can just Google it and find my number. Consider it my contribution to humanity 🙂

  2. An upgrade usually gives a user a few dozen features that will never be used. I think if you look at the tasks you complete in Word, more than 99% of them are things that Word has been capable of doing for more than ten years.

    One thing you can’t measure in the same way is the overall efficiency gained by users with the new interface in Office 2007. I have been using Office 2007 for six months and I can do normal tasks measurably quicker than before… and I was already pretty quick at most things.

    Of course, I also upgraded to the new version for $10 through UF’s campus agreement with MS. At that price, the upgrade pill was much easier to swallow.

  3. The $10 is the cheapest part of the upgrade. I remember being astounded that switching to Office 98 from Office 4 on the Mac tripled the memory use. When we’re talking about six year old machines with 256 MB of RAM, any efficiency gained through the user interface would be more than lost waiting for the program to load.

  4. It’s all about planned obsolescence and profit. Sure, they’ll throw in a few new features with each upgrade, but the price most people would pay for an upgrade (usually hundreds of dollars – far more than Alvin’s deep discounted educational price) is NOT going to yield them enough benefits to justify the purchase. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that most people won’t take the time to learn what the new features are anyway. So most will continue on happily with the version they are using.

    In order to make money with such a saturated market, Microsoft must recreate demand. So they stopped supporting the old versions of their programs and ceased making machines that were backwards compatible. Except that they eventually had SO many older versions out there that people complained. So now they accomplish the same goal by making the programs so big, messy, and unwieldy that they require far more memory than old machines generally have. Now it becomes your problem because your machine can’t process fast enough. (Now their partner companies like them better, because Microsoft just recreated demand for THEIR products and services as well!)

    Our desktop upstairs is 7 or 8 years old and has been memory upgraded at least twice, but when I got the laptop a year and a half ago, I was amazed at how fast it was. I still use MS Publisher 2000 and MS Excel, Word, and Powerpoint 2002 on it and all is well. If I need to share documents, I send a PDF (using free PDF software available online, of course) because my friends all seem to have different versions of the same software and often cannot open raw documents I send them. I told my parents to stick with MS Works and create PDF’s, too, rather than getting MS Office because it would not be worth the hundreds of dollars they’d have to spend.

  5. From a productivity standpoint, I spend way less time creating documents using Office 2007. It has a bit of a learning curve, but for our school district, I agree that XP will suffice. Updating will cause confusion and chaos that is unnecessary.

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